Monday, October 26, 2009

Emoti-Chair brings music to the deaf

Source Link - Emoti-Chair brings music to the deaf

Listening to music is something that most of us take for granted.

I for one, consume music like it is going out of style. Whether it's listening to countless albums a day, hearing background music in halls or restaurants or attending concerts on a regular basis; listening to music is something that has become natural to my everyday experience, and I'm sure that many others can say the same.
The deaf and hard of hearing unfortunately aren't afforded that same luxury - but that has been something that Dr. Frank Russo, professor of psychology at Ryerson, has been researching and developing the latest technology that will allow the deaf and hard of hearing to feel the same emotions from musical performances through vibrations in his groundbreaking Emoti-Chair.

Russo, who is the director of the Science of Music, Auditory Research and Technology (SMART) laboratory, has been working on the Emoti-Chair for the last three years. The Emoti-Chair's first prototype surfaced about two years ago, and on March 5, 2009, the chairs were used to host the First Concert for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing at Clinton's Tavern in Toronto.

Russo explained that the Emoti-Chairs allow the signals from the microphones on stage to come through the sound board. The signals are then filtered and separated into eight different bands ranging from high to low frequencies, which are sent to channels of vibrations embedded within the chair.

While the sound signal drives the vibration coils, there is very little processing of the sound, and that the real technological advancement lies in the filtering of the sound into the chair.

"The reason that the filtering is an innovation is that it allows you to feel the highs apart from the lows. If I was deaf and put my hand on an instrument or speaker and felt all the vibrations, all the vibration is all together in my hand, it's not separated out," said Russo.

"The low frequency vibration would mask the high frequency vibrations and I'm not going to get the full spectrum the way I would if I was hearing the signal. But by separating it out for them on their back, we can give the deaf and hard of hearing the full spectrum."

While their biggest event that the SMART lab put together was more of a rock concert, with Ontario alternative band Fox Jaws headlining the event - the event on Saturday Oct. 24 at The Music Gallery in Toronto was more of an intuitive experience with collaborators Array Music.

Array Music, who are considered to be Canada's leading contemporary music ensemble, took a special interest in the Emoti-Chair. They were invited to Ryerson's SMART lab to try out the chair and map out different ideas while trying to think of different ways they could lay focus on the chair's vibration rather than the sounds they were making.
"The dominant modality in pulling the program together was vibration. There are a few new pieces that have been composed and the rest of the program is existing pieces that seem to work well with vibration. The arrangement that has been used in the selection of instruments and their roles has been optimized for vibration," said Russo.
The Music Gallery opened an hour prior to the event to allow spectators to try out the Emoti-chairs and speak with the different people involved with the event. The chairs were very interesting and provided a sensory experience that was different from that of listening to music - but was still very rewarding. The familiarity of how I experience music was challenged, and it was strange to feel the different high and low tonalities coming through the chairs into my body, as opposed to the more direct route through my ears.

The performance's first set featured three songs chosen to highlight the vibrations that the chair gave off, and the second set consisted of four pieces distinctly constructed for the event.

As the performance went on, patrons who didn't have the opportunity to try out the chairs before-hand were invited to go and test out the chairs during the concert, and were also offered balloons as a low-tech substitution to the chairs.
Recently halls and theatres have included different assistive technology for the hearing impaired, but nothing quite at this scale. Russo stated that he would love to see the Emoti-Chair as the standard for this medium, but quickly added that "primarily we are researchers and that is a bit beyond us, but we are pursuing things like that. It's still pretty far off though".

"The technology is a simple variation of the old theme of speaker listening, which has been practiced by the members of the deaf community," explained Russo during his introduction to the performance. "What this ultimately means for the deaf community is an opening up of an ancient and universal, cultural, emotional expression."